The Trouble with Religion

CERTAINTY IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR FAITH

Religion, as it is ordinarily practiced, reconciles us-not to one another, in any interesting or profound way, but rather to the world as we would like to encounter it. If we are more or less liberal, it takes us easily into the world of liberal thought and its satisfactions, and if we are conservative, ditto. As someone once said of country music, when you’re drunk in a bar and hear it on the jukebox, it makes you think you’re right.

And this is precisely what is wrong about much, if not most, religion. Some of its atheist critics have a fair point: To the extent that it shores up a sense of certainty and reinforces the ego, religion is a damaging influence.

If the danger of conservative or reactionary religion is unquestioning certainty and dogmatic literalism, the danger of liberalism is its willingness to equate religion with personal taste and a tolerant worldview. What is lost in both views is the understanding that we must be transformed if we are to be what we are meant to be, that, as we are, we have been deformed, that our ordinary waking consciousness is at best a form of sleepwalking. It takes an effort, an ascetic struggle, to begin to be clear about anything. We must struggle for the beginning of clarity, and if we get to that beginning, we will not be satisfied with ourselves.

We will know that in every way we must be remade because of what we have been called to be, which has nothing to do with our politics or lifestyle. (What a shallow view of humanity is packed into that word!) We are called into a compassion that will bring us to a necessary discomfort; we will have to find ourselves in the company of people who are wounded and poor, and we will be there without the comfort of judgment.

Some critics of religion-Stanley Fish comes to mind-argue that religion is necessarily intolerant: If you believe X to be true, Y must be false, so off with Y’s head. Given the track record of armed religion, they have a point. But if you look at what serious Christians have understood to be the heart of Christianity, they really don’t. The desert fathers, for example, never judge others; seeing the sin of another, they turn the judgment against themselves. A serious understanding of the gospel would make me indifferent to what other people think or believe. It would focus me on how I get it wrong, not on how you have erred. It would have to do with metanoia, repentance, my own turning around. The work I must do is on my own clouded vision, the beam in my own eye.

But many conventional manifestations of religion do not do this. They see sin as always elsewhere, certainly not in me or my tribe. So some Christians look at homosexuals as the problem, while others point to those who despoil the environment, accumulate wealth, or favor the wars we hate-the list can be as long as we want to make it, and it’s pointless. To be of Christ’s mind means to empty ourselves, to hold on to nothing, including the list of others who are to blame.

Holding on to nothing means refusing to hold on to the need for assurance and certainty, the need to be right. This isn’t faith. Hebrews 11:1 tells us that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for.” This is not certainty as we ordinarily understand it. To hope for something is to await something, to care fervently that it comes to pass, and to know that in some corner of the heart we fear it may not. All the orientation here is toward the future. For the Christian, being prayerfully aware of the present also involves waiting. But much of the Christian community has lost this eschatological sense, which is the heart of the New Testament. “We do not know what we shall be, but we will see him as he is.” “Then we will know, as now we are known.” “Come, Lord Jesus.” And of course the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come.”

The Resurrection of Jesus is the earliest sign of something yet to be realized, just as the Eucharist is the bread of the kingdom that is among us and still to come. This sense of the unrealized is the heart of the Christian story. That is why Christian faith, seen properly, can never reconcile us to any particular politics, or way of life, or even morality as we conventionally understand it. We await our completion. We do not now, and never can, possess or control what we are finally meant to become. Someone who loves us more than we could possibly love ourselves is in charge of that.

Published in the 2007-10-12 issue: 
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John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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